Reflections on the Challenger Disaster 25 Years Later

January 28, 2011
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25 years ago today, one of the most significant tragedy-induced media events of the twentieth century took place: the Challenger Disaster.

On the morning of January 28th, 1986, N.A.S.A.’s Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven crew members—Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and civilian Christa McAuliffe (who was slated to become the first teacher in space).  Adding to the shock and consternation of the fatal explosion was the fact that the accident was broadcast live on CNN and was being simultaneously shown at countless schools across the United States in recognition of McAuliffe’s involvement with N.A.S.A.’s “Teacher in Space Project.”  When the space shuttle exploded, word of the accident disseminated faster than any other American news event since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  More troubling was reality that more children than adults likely witnessed the event while at school that day.  President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation later that evening in lieu of the scheduled State of the Union address, hoping to calm the grieving public.  The ensuing media coverage zeroed in on the “human element” of the disaster, namely the astronauts themselves; however, Christa McAuliffe’s death attracted the most attention due to her non-astronaut status and largely-symbolic, nontechnical role in the shuttle mission while the “other astronauts” faded into generic anonymity.  N.A.S.A., one of the few revered bureaucracies in the United States at the time, garnered intense scrutiny.  In many ways the American space program never fully recovered from the damage to its reputation, especially following the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003.

But what has the Challenger Disaster taught us about how we interpret disaster by engaging mass media?

Not long ago, television was the primary source of rapid-fire information dissemination.  Prior to the Internet’s existence, most technologically-mediated communicative receptions in mass society were passively disseminated; that is, they did not usually host contemporaneous expressive interactions like instant messaging or texting, but rather a sender and a receiver who need not directly communicate to convey a message.  Despite this, the pervasiveness of television news and “live” reporting promoted a sense of simultaneity for viewers who were symbolically connecting to the events unfolding on the screen.  Today, this simulation of connectivity is provided by digital interactions online and through new media technology, which provides an opportunity for quelling the human thirst for understanding (or release of anxiety) following a tragedy.

It is easy to take for granted just how accustomed we have become to witnessing tragedy and disaster unfold on the news.  In just the last year, American news media has been saturated with coverage of the BP Oil Spill, a chilling shootout during a Florida School Board meeting, and, most recently, the tragic massacre in Tucson, Arizona.  Yet, as harrowing as these events have been, the fact remains that American culture has come to expect (and even demand) all-encompassing coverage following a shocking event.  When the going gets tough, the tough seek information.

By closely following a significant disaster or world event, media consumers establish a sense of stability from their new found awareness, which they then use to anticipate or rationalize the causational anxieties which may surface in times of peril.  However, when analog news operations fall short of providing such comfort through their broadcasts (or conversely, when they devote too much time to a single news story and flood their programs with recycled facts that fail to advance the current state of knowledge), people individually seek out information through the use of technology in an attempt to make sense of the world as it changes—on their own terms.  This occurred in the aftermath of the Challenger Disaster in the form of popular “sick joke” cycles that rhetorically countered the emotional hegemony of broadcast media in reporting the story; they influenced countless subsequent disaster-related joke cycles.

Without question, the subsequent media approaches following major events such as the Challenger Disaster have served to establish contemporary traditions for how the news is now captured and reported.  Stepping back reveals clear patterns that have emerged in the reportage of disaster: a focus on the “human element” (specifically a single individual’s story—McAuliffe with the Challenger Disaster; Todd Beamer’s folklorized cry of “let’s roll” in taking back a hijacked plane on 9/11; youngster Charles Evans articulating the frustration of so many during Hurricane Katrina; pilot Chesley Sullenberger after saving passengers from a crashed plane on the Hudson River; Ginger Littleton’s attempt at thwarting gunman Clay Duke from shooting members of a Florida School Board by hitting him with her purse; and so on); addresses by public figures and politicians; and relentless coverage that often replays the most dramatic and violent elements of the story.  In all of these cases, a clear desire for resolution, understanding, and solace is palpable.

Nevertheless, 25 years after the Challenger Disaster, we appear to be more accustomed to processing death, disaster, and tragedy as it unfolds than ever before, and with even greater means and desires to consume the unfolding narratives.


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3 Responses to “ Reflections on the Challenger Disaster 25 Years Later ”

  1. Tom on January 28, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    There is one thing that is overlook in the 25 years that has past since the Challenger disaster. The one lesson that continues to be learned is that allowing managers that take short cuts just to expedite a project should be held accountable. It seems this past summer with BP, these lessons were never learned. The billions of dollars wasted and lives that have been sacrificed for the sake of a dollar. None of those responsible were prosecuted. Even with the countless witnesses we still do not hold those accountable to criminal prosecution.

    • Trevor J. Blank on January 28, 2011 at 10:27 AM

      Tom, thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more– it’s such a shame that “the bottom line” takes precedence over the safety of living, breathing people. We’ve seen the ramifications of such a mentality both in disasters and tragedies, and especially with recent economic woes.

      My question is: how can we realistically work to change this? I wish that it could be as simple as removing the crooks and bureaucrats from their posts, but I genuinely am stuck on figuring out a solution for how to make things better. And the state of partisanship in the United States makes it clear that looking to politicians for answers is likely a bad move :\

  2. Alex Janevski on January 28, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    Like many people my age, this event and the space program, in general, played a big role in my life. My kindergarten class watched the Challenger explosion, with little understanding of what was happening. There was a big build up to the event because of McAuliffe’s presence. Our classroom had a bulletin board with her picture on it (along with the other astronauts). I feel bad for what my teacher must have felt at the moment of explosion.

    But I remember being more disappointed a few weeks later when I was unable to see Halley’s Comet. I had been kept from understanding what really happened with Challenger.

    A few years later I was one of a few students selected to speak to astronauts over live video feed aboard the space station. Thrilling, for me, after a few years of astronaut dreaming (my first real “I want to do this when I grow up,” and also my first time being interviewed for the local news).

    When I started college as an engineer, a job with NASA was on my mind. One of my profs was an astronaut. Even after I switched to geology, I continued to think about it. I still do, and have always planned to become a pilot as soon as I can afford to. I don’t know that I’ll ever have an “in” to work at NASA, especially with funding for it declining (some of which I agree with). But I do know that I wouldn’t have followed my flight plan, toward science, to a graduate degree, if it wasn’t for the media exposure that I had as a kid.

    On another note, I really enjoyed the novel, “The Time it Takes to Fall” (

    It’s set in Florida, NASA families, and really evoked the zeitgeist: economic, social, the mid-80s, shopping malls; and, maybe most importantly, a generation of girls being raised to believe that they, too, can aspire to anything. McAuliffe’s role in a ‘traditional’ female job, being ‘lucky’ to be aboard the shuttle, unfortunately seems to have overshadowed the story of Sally Ride, who just a few years prior had become the first American woman in space – also aboard Challenger.